Canadian Women’s Foundation empowers bystanders to stand up to abuse

Having created a life-saving hand signal, the non-profit is now helping the many Canadians who don't know how to respond to signs of domestic violence.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is once again putting the power to stand up to domestic abuse in people’s hands, with more of an effort to help the well-intentioned better respond when they see something worth speaking up about.

The latest campaign features diverse people pledging their intent to do more and to not sit on the sidelines when they see the signs of domestic abuse, and finally unveils the number to text if one suspects there is danger in the home – a literal call to action – by texting SIGNAL to 540-540.

The OLV, OOH, digital and social campaign was created by Juniper Park\TBWA, which won an Effie Canada Grand Prix for its “Signal for Help” predecessor.

“It’s a life saving message,” says Andrea Gunraj, VP of public engagement, Canadian Women’s Foundation. “We are trying to make sure people around survivors are available to help and have a basic tool to help,” she says, adding that having a number to correspond to a way the hand signal looks, was an impactful means of further connecting.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation began working with Juniper Park\TBWA when the pandemic began. As lockdowns commenced, instances of domestic abuse rose, with victims forced to stay in close quarters with their abusers. And with fewer chances to get away or interactions with others who may see the signs of abuse, the agency created a campaign that was centred around a surreptitious hand signal someone could use while on a video call to let someone know they need help, without tipping off their abuser.

That campaign had a life of its own on TikTok, obviously touching a nerve and meeting a need, Gunraj says. Because the signal spread as it did, it has a had a real impact, though not always in the way it was originally intended. Instead of being on a video call, a girl who had been reported missing in Kentucky flashed the signal from inside a car window to communicate her distress with motorists earlier this month, one of whom recognized the signal and contacted authorities.

This year, there’s a need to continue to speak the story and extend it, Gunraj says, but also let other people know what they can do when they see a signal for help. So, the new campaign is trying to spread along with the signal, associating each part of the hand gesture with one of the digits in the number observers should text.

The campaign coincides with November being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and is informed by an October national poll of 1,515 Canadians conducted by Maru/Matchbox on behalf of the the organization, identifying very low levels of confidence in knowing what to say and do to support someone experiencing gender-based violence.

Only 1 in 6 people in Canada, in fact, are very confident that they would know what to say or do to support someone experiencing sexual or emotional abuse. Moreover, only about a quarter of Canadians are very confident that they would know how to refer someone to helpful and reliable support services.

It’s about “shock-proofing Canada” from gender-based violence, she says, and it’s clear that whenever there’s a crisis or disaster, the need is most great. It’s trying to address this in a holistic way, changing it from a culture of stigma to one of support.

“I can definitely say this is the most we’ve been able to put into a campaign, and we have to acknowledge the support of Women and Gender Equality Canada, a department of the federal government,” Gunraj says.

This past Mother’s Day, the Canadian Women’s Foundation put out an empowerment message, calling for gender justice and equality.

“For us, we really look at it from the perspective of mandate and mission and gender justice is a really big issue we are trying to address with many facets,” she says.

Media on the campaign is being handled by Touché, with donated OOH sapce from AllVision, Astral Media, and Pattison. The latest video was directed by Kelsey Larkin, with pro bono support of Skin & Bones production house, Rooster on editing, Alter Ego for post-production and Grayson Mathews for sound design.